Why young people have a right to an opinion on the Thatcher years

I was under two months old when John Major’s Conservative Party won the 1992 general election.  Of course, that possessive apostrophe may seem out of place to many.  The party may have been Major’s in name, but the spirit of Margaret Thatcher hung over the Conservative Party throughout his premiership.  It is often remarked that the so-called ‘Thatcherite’ ideology had more subscribers within the party after she had resigned as leader than during her reign, as those who had been inspired by her entered government.  Indeed, this Thatcherite tendency among Conservative MPs is just as prevalent today, if not more so.

There are some who would argue that I have no right to remark upon the Thatcher years, having not been alive to see them.  Regularly in the aftermath of Thatcher’s death this week, a variation of this argument has been howled on the internet, in the media, or simply in conversation.  Owen Jones, one of the brightest young thinkers of the left and author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class was confronted with this argument on Twitter, and his pithy response highlighted the absurdity of this line of thinking: “You are so right!  And what about all those historians going on about Tudor England? What do they know!”. 

Aside from the ridiculous view that an opinion on historical events is only valid if one lived through those events, the reason young people deserve to be able to judge the Thatcher years is that it is us who are still facing the consequences of the things she did when in power.  That’s not to suggest that we have a more legitimate right to be heard than those that were around in the 1980s, of course, but it is to say that we should not be excluded from the debate. 

I am due to graduate from university in July and will be looking for employment, for example.  Unfortunately, in contrast to the past when employers used to chase recent graduates, there aren’t an awful lot of jobs to be filled due to the economic recession Britain is embroiled in – a direct result of the financial deregulation that Thatcher enacted.  Of course, the right try to argue that the recession was a result of “reckless spending” by the last Labour government.  For sure, neither Tony Blair’s administration nor Gordon Brown’s were fiscally responsible but more for a different reason entirely – they failed to adequately regulate the markets and so the banks took more and more risks, gave out loans to people who had no chance of being able to pay them back, and spent enormous amounts of money on reckless gambling through obscure financial mechanisms such as ‘derivatives’ and the like.  Brown’s claim that he had ended ‘boom and bust’ was an absurdly hubristic claim that was eventually revealed to be as ridiculous as his claim to be an Arctic Monkeys fan (he later admitted he couldn’t name a single song of theirs).  The economic ‘growth’ of the previous decade was revealed to be built largely from private debt. 

Similarly, if I manage to find a job, someday I might start to think about getting a foot on the property ladder.  Easier said than done – Thatcher’s sell-off of council houses under the ‘right-to-buy’ scheme and her insistence that local authorities would not be allowed to reinvest the money into more affordable homes was the cause of the housing crisis we are now experiencing.  Only space prevents me from detailing more examples of the problems stored up for my generation by Thatcher’s actions.

So forgive me for feeling it is not out of place for my voice to be heard in the debate around Thatcher’s death.  This is particularly true as it is important to counteract the right’s narrative of her legacy, whether we were alive at the time or not.  A common view I saw on social media in the aftermath of her death was that we should all leave this poor little old lady alone and allow her family to grieve.  This is a perfectly just argument in relation to some of the more puerile comments that have been made in recent days.  I also believe that we should not celebrate the death of any human being (though I must admit I find it harder to be angry at the celebrations emanating from those who had their lives directly blighted by her policies, such as the miners beaten at Orgreave).  But, as has been argued elsewhere, censoring any criticism of Thatcher’s political acts leaves the right to define the narrative of her time in government.  I have seen this articulated no more eloquently than by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian, and I feel it worth quoting the key thrust of his argument here:  “Demanding that no criticisms be voiced to counter that hagiography is to enable false history and a propagandistic whitewashing of bad acts, distortions that become quickly ossified and then endure by virtue of no opposition and the powerful emotions created by death.  When a political leader dies, it is irresponsible in the extreme to demand that only praise be permitted but not criticisms”.

I feel that this is particularly true of the politically engaged younger generation.  In this era of political disillusionment, one’s Facebook homepage is seldom dominated by political debate and yet that is exactly what happened in the wake of Thatcher’s death.  So to view comments about her ‘saving’ the country and the like (a perfectly legitimate opinion, of course, albeit one I disagree with), and to leave it unchallenged leads to the “propagandistic whitewash” that Greenwald writes of.  Why should the left leave the debate entirely to the right, merely because someone has died?  So long as the line between taste and decency is not crossed, it would be irresponsible not to highlight the facets of her time in power that might leave some to reappraise their view of her – her callousness in dealing with the unions (and the miners in particular); her denunciation of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress as a “terrorist organisation”; her support for General Pinochet’s murderous dictatorship in Chile; her patchy (to put it kindly) record on gay rights and women’s rights, and so on.  I don’t remember (elements of) the right being quite so keen on respecting the dead when Hugo Chavez passed away recently, nor, I’m sure, will they when, say, Tony Benn or Dennis Skinner do so.

In the days since Thatcher’s death I have felt some of how I imagine it would have been like to be politically engaged during her years in power, with the polarisation between left and right clear for all to see.  It reflects rather badly on today’s politics where apathy rules the day.  Make no mistake, the present government is even further to the right than Thatcher, dressing up their ideological dismantling of the welfare state by talking of the need to ‘get our house in order’ and sort out the national debt – ignoring the fact that their austerity policies are doing entirely the opposite.  So if Thatcher’s death gets people to start to debate politics then all the better – perhaps then we might see more people start to care about the destruction today’s government is wreaking.  Things like the creeping privatisation of the NHS – an element of the welfare state even Thatcher didn’t dare touch.  Like the re-writing of the education curriculum by a man who wants children to learn facts by rote, despite all the evidence that this can put children off education for life – provoking even the moderate ATL trade union to launch a strike, the first time headteachers in this union have ever done so.  Or like the disgusting rhetoric of David Cameron and George Osborne doing their best to adopt a ‘divide and rule’ strategy, turning those in work (‘strivers’) against the so-called ‘skivers’ – when in reality most people on benefits are in work and need the meagre wages they are paid by the private sector topped up so they can afford to live; and those who are not in work are mostly unemployed not because they want to live a life ‘leaching’ off taxpayers but because there are no jobs to be had.  Even the disabled can’t escape – see the changes being brought in to disability benefit that will force many into destitution.

So, yes, those of us not born in Thatcher’s era deserve to have our voices heard.  As the political commentator Jonathan Freedland argued:  “…this debate over how to remember Margaret Thatcher… is not about the past.  It is a contest over Britain’s present and future”.  If the young don’t deserve to be a part of that debate then something is seriously amiss.   

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